Like any third installment in a movie franchise, The Trip to Spain has a built-in audience that knows just what to expect. Two British comics (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing stylized versions of themselves) tour a picturesque countryside, enjoying expensive meals as part of a celebrity journalism assignment and relentlessly vying to out-banter each other while their midlife frustrations and fears of mortality burble underneath.
As in The Trip and The Trip to Italy before it, Coogan (widely known at home for his TV role as self-important chat-show host Alan Partridge) is an irascible yet charismatic knot of thwarted ambition, while Welsh impressionist Brydon is the puppyish family man who needles and humors him.
Once more, Coogan and Brydon compulsively and competitively debate the nuance of celebrity impersonation throughout their travels. Each movie has featured a lengthy duel of Michael Caine impressions (here we learn how Mick Jagger might imitate him), and since we’re in Spain, you might expect Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch to surface, which it does—as voiced by Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro imitating Brando.
The ongoing rivalry doesn’t just make for great comedy; director Michael Winterbottom and his two stars have a sharp sense of how the dynamics of male friendships play out. In their droll, literate way, Coogan and Brydon are a lot like their counterparts in the big Cineplex blockbusters: the two mismatched cops ordered to work a case together, the Avengers squabbling as they save the world.
Spain’s a little less manic than its predecessors, intentionally in part, but maybe also due to a slight dip in enthusiasm—these guys have been at this same shtick since 2010 after all. It also unnecessarily beefs up the plot (two unexpected pregnancies) and ladles on the pathos, over-accentuating Coogan’s loneliness and Brydon’s contentedness. As Coogan’s agent dumps him and the likelihood of jumpstarting an old romance fizzles, his midlife desperation amps up, and he neurotically compares himself to geniuses who flourished in middle age years: to Olivier, to Cervantes, to Picasso. Time is running out for the old guy.
In more ways than one. Since The Trip to Spain is the story of two British men touring a continent their fellow citizens voted to sever ties with last year (and Winterbottom is a politically astute director), the omission of even a passing Brexit mention feels deliberate. But history does intrude on this idyll—Coogan obsesses over the Spanish Civil War, and compares the spread of ISIS to the occupation of Spain by the eighth-century Moors.
“The Moores?” Brydon jumps in, his subsequent mimicry of Roger Moore boasting of his family’s achievements not just a hilarious bit but a way to duck out of discussing current events—“Can we stop talking about ISIS?” he blurts at one point. With fascism and fanaticism on the rise, a film series that’s been awash in comfort and affluence acknowledges problems looming over the horizon that are worse than old age—maybe even worse than losing your agent.
The Trip to Spain
Director: Michael WinterbottomS
Starring: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Marta Barrio
Theater: Opens Friday, Uptown Theatre